Evangelist Billy Graham, one of the most significant figures in American religion and politics, was the subject of a keynote speech at the 2016 convention of the Associated Church Press April 22.
“Graham’s story is important for what it tells us about the American political scene,” said keynote speaker Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke University. Wacker specializes in the history of Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, world missions and American Protestant thought. He is author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Harvard University Press, 2014) and other books.
Wacker said he had met with Graham personally four times—most recently in 2013—and came away each time in awe of the evangelist’s humility and enduring charisma. Now approaching 98, Graham lives alone, assisted by visiting nurses, in a modest home in Montreat, N.C.
Wacker listed numerous highlights of Graham’s career: The crowds at his crusades set countless stadium records. He met personally with 12 presidents, four of whom became his close friends: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. He also formed close relationships with their first ladies.
Unlike many other public figures, Graham never developed an adversarial relationship with reporters. “What’s striking about Graham’s career is how well he got along with the press,” Wacker said. From the 1950s on, reporters’ attitudes toward the evangelist warmed from curiosity to respect to admiration to veneration.
But not everyone revered Graham, Wacker said. For example, President Harry Truman called him a hypocrite, and columnist George Will described him as “America’s most embarrassing export.”
Graham was also criticized for partisanship and for his unwavering support for President Nixon throughout the Watergate scandal. Wacker called Graham’s close friendship with Nixon “the most unfortunate personal relationship of Graham’s life.” Years later, after reading transcripts of Nixon’s profanity-laced conversations in the Oval Office, Graham was “forced to acknowledge that his dear friend had failed him and had failed the nation,” Wacker said.
In summarizing the legacy of Billy Graham, Wacker noted that he provided much-needed pastoral care for the nation’s leaders. Yet despite his close relationships with presidents, Wacker added, “Graham offered a model of balance and integrity remarkable for someone who had access to the pinacle of American power.”
Wacker also remarked that Graham “charted a progressive path on most social issues of the day”—with the exception of feminism. He grew steadily more progressive on racism and civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the rise of the Christian right, whom he criticized for ignoring hunger, poverty, and justice issues.
Wacker cited the testimony of President Bill Clinton, who at age 13 used his personal savings to travel to a Billy Graham crusade in Little Rock, Ark., in 1958. Clinton recalled hearing Graham denounce segregation—a stand that sparked a storm of criticism. Clinton never forgot that Graham “took on racism when he had nothing to gain from it,” Wacker said.
Graham is significant because “he represented the values of millions of Americans whose values had not been represented in the public square,” Wacker said. At the same time, Graham “inspired millions of Americans to live up to their ideals.”